We all arrived in London on the same day, the same train. I can still remember it pulling into the station, the commuters leaping from their seats as soon as the upside-down table of Battersea Power station drifted into view. They all seemed so desperate to be the first out of the door. They hovered around the exits, tapping against the glass like flies, muscles tensed in anticipation, like greyhounds waiting to spring from the traps. When the doors opened they would fly away. Sorry, I’ve always been bad at mixing my metaphors. Or should that be ‘good’ at mixing my metaphors? I suppose it’s entirely dependent upon the scale that you use... The five of us were good friends. Or, at least, the five of us considered each other to be good friends, in the way that people who have grown up together usually do. In reality, we shared little more than the same age, and parents who were geographically proximate. No, on second thoughts, we did share one other thing. Hunger. Some call it greed, others ambition, but I think ‘hunger’ does it justice. We were all possessed with that gnawing itch, that desire for more, for bigger, for faster. And so we’d buttoned our seatbelts, pulled our skates up, and moved to London. To make our fortune, or figuratively die trying.
It was the early nineties, so property was gold, and the obvious choice for investment. So what if it was theft - theft is exciting and profitable. From the first day, we spent money indiscriminately. It would have been hard not to; at every corner of every street there were estate agents offering you the chance to sign your name on the dotted line. A flat in Euston? Why not? A shop on Vine Street? Why, thank you, I don’t mind if I do. Within months, I had a string of houses stretching from Bow Street to the Strand. I think a small part of me realised that it couldn’t last forever, but at the time I was content, and rolling in it. D (I can’t bring myself to type his full name. He doesn’t deserve that courtesy) and I were doing best. He’d invested in Islington penthouses, and was raking it in now that professional twenty-something couples decided that they’d like to like to live somewhere with a postcode that didn’t contain the letters “W” or “S”. He started taking us all out to posh restaurants, telling us stories about meetings with his accountant. “Well,” said B, “That’s nothing. My accountant is so good that he has his own accountant”. They’d always been rivals, but this streak got worse when alcohol was involved. S always had to sit between them at our meal, reminding them that there were families present in the restaurant. We’d always meet at D’s beforehand – he had a limousine and a driver now, and we would travel around the city feeling like kings, fingers crossed that we’d find somewhere to park for free. It very rarely happened, but when it did, we felt like we’d won the lottery. The irony of a stretch limo in free parking was delicious, the icing on the bee’s knees.
But as the months and years went by, it started to feel a bit repetitive, like I was just going around in circles; Sign this lease. Pay that rent. See your accountant. Sign this lease. I know that everything was going well and I should have felt great, but I couldn’t shift this slight sense of unease. It’s just... Well, I don’t know quite how to express it, but... It felt like I wasn’t in control, like these things were just happening to me. I don’t believe in fate, or destiny, or a man with a white beard who welcomes you with outstretched arms once you start to decompose, but I felt like an observer of my own life. At school I’d always joked that I was an emotional backstop, experiencing things two paces removed, while wearing thick gloves and a helmet. But the restaurants, the cars, the nights out – there was a little voice in the back of my head whispering “you are not the architect of your success”. And I think I knew that it was true. I hadn’t done anything to deserve this. I was living off compound interest; the money wasn’t mine, it was the money’s. I know it’s bad, but I was almost relieved when I got the call about L. He’d been taken to a police station, and needed someone to pay bail. Well, he didn’t need someone to pay his bail, per say – he’d been burning the midnight oil from both ends, and now owned half of the West End and a large shareholder stake in the redesign of King’s Cross. He just didn’t have fifty pounds to hand. Just think – for us, that was petty cash! So I walked over to the station, and paid it without hesitation. We had a good catch-up, afterwards, over a pint in one of the chain of hotels that I now owned. When I asked him what he was in for he said that he couldn’t say – probably just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, some jumped-up policeman wanting an arrest. I believed him then. After all, who hadn’t had a run in with an official with a clipboard and a god complex?
That meeting was my last with L for about a year. The restaurant visits had stopped, and the five of us had grown apart, too busy with our expanding empires for such indulgences as friends. I think D’s birthday was when it really hit me. No-one gave him a card, or a cake, or an hour. They just handed him a ten pound note, brusquely wished him a good day, then left. Their property wasn’t going to look after itself. It was just another transaction on their balance sheets, just another invoice in the out tray... Invoices in the out tray were becoming increasingly common around this time. You see, the lines of credit were starting to dry up. It was a slow process, imperceptible at first. But soon the estate agents calls were less frequent, fewer couples booked viewings, and eventually people just weren’t putting their property on the market. This hit B hardest of all; most of his assets were luxury houses in Mayfair. He still had viewings, but no-one was putting down any deposits. You can take a horse to water, but you can’t take the water out of the horse... I was largely unaffected – as I said, I was merely living off compound interest, and as long as people continued to want to stay in a hotel while they visited London, I could conceivably continue to do so. D decided to adapt, ‘diversify his portfolio’, buying into the trains. Soon, he was a stakeholder in services from Marylebone, Fenchurch Street, and Liverpool Street Station. I think S was the busiest around this time. He’d bought into the waterworks and a gas plant, and was constantly on business trips to the European continent, to slip Gazprom execs little brown envelopes.
As the years passed, I started to wish it would all end. I did, once or twice, contemplate leaving: taking a train out of London, giving my property away, and calling it a day. My hotels were doing fine, but I was bored, so bored, and increasingly isolated. L was in and out of prison, and only called when he needed the bail. I know he kept saying that he wasn’t doing anything wrong, but if that was true, why did he keep getting arrested? He’d had to sell on his West-End flats to cover the mounting legal bills, and the King’s Cross Shares were all he had left. Which would have been fine, were it not for D. You see, over the years, D had become obsessed with the idea of owning all of the stations. Whenever L was arrested, he’d show up at the police station, offering him the £50 bail money for his station stake! Can you believe it? B had gone bankrupt, in the meantime, his empty penthouses overlooking Hyde Park a monument to excess. Had Tracey Emin stuck her name on them, they would have won the Turner Prize. S had dropped below the radar since a deal with a Russian oligarch turned sour. Apparently one of his little brown envelopes was empty. Or at least, that was the word on the grapevine. For all we knew, he could be living in comfort in Switzerland or the Bahamas, having concocted the most creative non-dom alibi of the decade.
When the most exciting thing to happen in your week is receiving ten pounds from a bank error in your favour, I think it’s time to step back and take a look at your life.